Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Restless Conqueror, part one

There’s something about Civil War veterans who go on to make their mark as explorers that really piques my interest. Two that have been the subject of modern biographies are worthy of mention here. I’m readying a more detailed post on John Wesley Powell, about whom much has been written, he who lost an arm at Shiloh, and who went on to navigate the Colorado River.

And now comes a brand new biography of Henry Morton Stanley, The Restless Conqueror. (photo at top). Holy Johosaphat, what a fascinating story. The Welshman had a rough childhood. Fleeing that, as a young adult he found himself in the South at the beginning of the Civil War. Quoting David Gilmour’s review in a recent NewYork Review of Books:

In 1861, when he was living in Arkansas, Stanley felt obliged to enlist in the Confederate Army because someone had sent him a petticoat, implying he was a coward. Captured the following year at the Battle of Shiloh, he was taken to Chicago to a federal prison camp and subsequently released on condition that he join the Union Army. But while stationed with the artillery in West Virginia, he was prostrated by dysentery and left in the local hospital when his regiment moved on. Although he later claimed he had been discharged, he had actually been told to rejoin his unit when his health improved. His refusal to do so thus turned him into a deserter.

Before the war was over, Stanley returned to America and enlisted in the U. S. Navy, then deserted one more time. His post-war career as a journalist on the Plains was more remarkable yet. Quoting again from Gilmour:

On his return to America in 1867, Henry Stanley finally discovered what he was good at: describing battles and other adventures in the newspapers. During a year in which he reported for the Missouri Democrat on expeditions against the Cheyenne and on negotiations between the Plains Indians and the government, Stanley got to know Wild Bill Hickok, Colonel George A. Custer, and General William Tecumseh Sherman, who later told him that his journey to Livingstone was a greater feat than his own "March to the Sea." His success as a journalist convinced James Gordon Bennett Jr., the proprietor of the New York Herald, to hire him to cover a British expedition to Abyssinia, to write about the 1868 revolution in Spain, and, more famously, to "FIND LIVINGSTONE," an injunction that, as Jeal points out, was much dramatized in Stanley's account of the negotiations.

And all this before the events that made him “famous.” I have to quote one more passage of Gilmour’s review, as it strikes a chord all students of history respond to, even if they don’t want to hear it:

Adult readers of history have to unlearn many of the things they remember from their schooldays. This is especially true of quotations of famous people because before the invention of tape recording virtually anything they said from the Old Testament onward was almost certain to be misquoted unless they wrote it down themselves.

The correction of misquotations is often a relief. It is good to learn that the Duke of Wellington could not have made the foolish remark that "the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton": apart from the absence of evidence, the school's fields were not used for organized sports when he was a schoolboy in the 1780s, and in any case he never played on them. But sometimes it is sad to find that well-remembered sayings—pithy, pungent, and redolent of the speaker—were never uttered, that Oliver Cromwell did not dismiss the Rump Parliament with the words "Take away these baubles," that he never told the painter Peter Lely to depict him "warts and all." These are the historical equivalents to learning that Sherlock Holmes never said "Elementary, my dear Watson," or that Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca does not say "Play it again, Sam."

Now comes an even greater shock. In his impressive, revealing, and well-written biography of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, Tim Jeal argues that the most famous greeting in history was never delivered. As a child I saw an engraving of the meeting between Stanley and David Livingstone above the caption "Dr Livingstone, I presume." I loved both the greeting and the picture of the two strangers, surrounded by Arabs and Africans, solemnly doffing their hats on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. More impressed than I am now by the virtues of being laconic, hlegmatic, and English, I admired the formality and sangfroid of men who, after long and hazardous journeys, had finally met in "darkest" Africa. The later discovery that Stanley was a Welshman pretending to be an American, and that he had prepared a greeting in the style of an English gentleman, added pathos as well as absurdity. So did the knowledge that the greeting swiftly became a joke in London's music halls.

Yet according to Jeal, nothing memorable was actually said, and Stanley invented the words afterward when he wanted to infuse the occasion with a striking phrase. Thus he was forced to cut out the pages in his diary that described the encounter. But he could not censor Livingstone's letters, which record the meeting in detail to various correspondents, and do not mention any such greeting. One of the many ironies of Stanley's life is that he is remembered more for a remark he did not make than for his career as the greatest explorer of the nineteenth century.


Unknown said...

Awesome post and sounds like a super book. I came across a lot of antebellum soldier-explorers when doing research a few years ago on the early history of the chemistry department at West Point, several of whom went on to feats in the Civil War.

Happy Holidays and I look forward to more great posts on your blog in 2008.

Jim Schmidt

DW@CWBA said...

Did you read Cheairs Hughes'"Sir Henry Morton Stanley: Confederate"?


dw said...


No, I haven't. Nor do I have any recollection of that book coming out. Looks good -- I like everything I've read by Nat Hughes (Belmont, Bentonville, one on CSA generals buried in Tennessee). Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Have you read it?


DW@CWBA said...

No, I haven't. I used to see the remaindered copies around and wondered how the author got a book length study out of such a short stint.

I really liked his Belmont book.

Merry Christmas,